Byline: Mark Le Bien Daily Herald Business Writer
Some law enforcers call it "the dope of the '90s."
They're referring to the sale of stolen computer components on a fast-growing illegal market that spans the globe.
Memory chips. Circuit boards. Integrated circuits. Disk drives. Laptop computers. They've become the loot of choice among a new class of criminals that has been spawned by the computer age.
Thieves steal chips and parts out of computers in offices late at night, break into component factories on weekends or snatch laptops out of parked cars. In bolder and more alarming cases, armed thugs raid companies in the middle of the day or hijack trucks loaded with components.
In one instance in California's Silicon Valley, thieves kidnapped a chip company executive and forced him to let them into his building.
"The problem is overwhelming," says Rich Bernes, head of the FBI's high-tech crime squad in San Jose, Calif. He notes that a stolen Pentium chip fetches the same amount of cash on the street as an ounce of cocaine.
What's driving the illegal trade? The marketplace, according to experts.
Right now, the world has an insatiable appetite for computer components, especially chips. They go into everything from computers to blenders to toys.
And when there's a supply shortage, as happens periodically, components become as valuable as drugs or jewels.
Theft is costing the electronics industry $8 billion a year, according to the Technology Theft Prevention Foundation. At its current growth rate, losses from high-tech crime will hit $200 billion by the turn of the century, the group estimates.
Those forecasts include losses from theft of "intellectual property" - customer lists, billing information, employee records and other essential data that can be stolen from computers.
For the moment, the problem is concentrated in high-tech centers in California, Texas and Boston. The Chicago area, not known as a high-tech hotbed, has gone relatively unscathed - so far.
But local experts say that could change as the region becomes home to more and more computer component suppliers.
"I think we're seeing the first signs of it as people become more aware of the numbers of (high-tech) manufacturers in Illinois," said Master Sgt. James Murray of the Illinois State Police and president of the Midwest chapter of the High Tech Crime Investigators Association.
Last year there were police reports of chip thefts at companies in Itasca, Barrington, Buffalo Grove and Vernon Hills. There was also a case in Wheeling where robbers surprised the driver of a truck parked at the loading dock of a company. The truck was filled with computers.
"They told him to get out and took the whole thing," says Murray. …